Perusing the new and improved North Battleford Galleries newsletter, I came upon the open invitation to attend Keith Bartlett’s Drum Circle, held every Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in his music studio in the Don Ross Centre.
Although I’ve never drummed per se, I’ve always had a secret longing to drum, likely a result of having strep throat in Grade 4.
Our class had been practicing for what seemed like forever for the school’s Christmas production, in which we would be singing The Little Drummer Boy and banging it out on ice cream pails we had decorated ourselves. Not to mention the ultra-cool construction paper hats, which, in hindsight, would’ve probably been more appropriate for the 12 Days of Christmas’s eleven drummers drumming than the “I am a poor boy too” Little Drummer Boy.
Even though I was technically a girl, I just knew that I was going to be the best little drummer boy out of our whole class and Jesus was really going to love me. Then I got sick, and the thwarted ambition has occupied a small spot in my heart ever since, just begging for the chance to break out the Pa-rum-pum-pum-pum.
So, together with my roommate Rob and friend Sabrina, I walked through Door #5 at the Don Ross, intent on fulfilling a certain 10-year-old girl’s dream of destiny.
Keith appeared exactly as one would imagine a drum circle leader to be: his sandy hair is long, he is wearing sandals despite the cool weather and his eyes seem to house the wisdom one sees in well-traveled souls.
The other drummer present that Thursday (the beauty of an open drumming circle: you never know who’s going to be there) was Dejan Nad, who immigrated to Canada from Serbia.
“He’s like a rhythmic genius,” said Keith, adding the two have played together on countless occasions, experimenting with different sounds and techniques.
Their latest foray into the musically unknown involves five gallon water jugs, which produce a surprising variety of sounds.
Once we had all selected a drum – some people bring their own, but Keith keeps a few extras handy for those who don’t – Keith gave a brief lesson, and the drumming began.
Although wobbly at first, the rhythm began to emerge and soon we were moving to the same heartbeat.
Rob outshone me once again (is there nothing he can’t do?!) but since he was moving to Calgary that very weekend, I kept my resentment in check.
It seemed that as soon as I got the hang of drumming, my fingers started to throb in painful harmony. We took breaks, talking until a lull in conversation prompted a renewal of the drumming, then, one by one, falling out of the drumming circle. I usually fell first.
We kept at it for far longer than I believe any of us had intended, and when we finally rose, it was with reluctance. I think we would all agree that something special had happened in our circle.
Days later, as Keith pours me a French-pressed coffee, he tells me how every session is unique, and creates a sense of community among the drummers.
“As soon as we play together, we become part of a larger thing,” he explains.
Keith said although he’s always tapped out rhythms on any available surfaces, it was while he was in Africa that he was inspired to start drumming.
A musician his entire life, Keith has, at various times, performed, recorded, produced and arranged music. He plays a wide variety of instruments, including the banjo, the fiddle, the guitar and the piano.
“I was just born to do that,” he says.
Keith was invited to be a guest performer at a four-day music festival in Liberia, where over a dozen tribes gathered to represent the music and dance of their region.
“That was a big experience,” says Keith. “Hearing all those rhythms and seeing the dancers.”
It was also while in Africa that Keith decided he would move to North Battleford in lieu of a larger urban centre.
“Cities are kind of a problem,” said Keith, pointing to the trend of young people leaving their villages, and often their culture, for the big cities.
“I saw the importance of social development in rural areas,” he said.
He pointed to the drum circle as an example of community, explaining how in some African villages, youth would learn to drum by being included in the circle with more experienced drummers and gently guided, being able to develop their talents in an atmosphere of inclusion.
He said the same principle is true for artists.
“You need a community, and the bigger the city, the harder it is to feel you’re in a community,” he said.
When Keith, originally from Harris, came to the Battlefords, he was coaxed into teaching. His studio is reflective of his style, with the warm sunlight streaming into the room through wild plants and falling on knick knacks and art collected from former and current students.
Much like our drumming circle, our conversation also continues on for longer than we intended and we are interrupted by a family of guitar students coming in for their lesson.
But even though I’m disappointed that I’ve only scratched the surface of Keith, I know the visit won’t be my last.
As I leave the music studio, it occurs to me that although Keith clearly shines as the little drummer boy, it’s a role he can have.
I’m sure Jesus really loves us both anyways.